Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 09/12/2016


Why we should read...
`The History of Sasun' by H Boghossian
(360pp, 1985, Yerevan)

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 12, 2016

By Eddie Arnavoudian


The history of the Ottoman occupied western Armenian region of Sasun,
like the history of 19th and early 20th century Ottoman occupied Armenia
is also in part the history of the rise of modern Turkish nationalism
that embedded in the Ottoman State set about the destruction of any and
all manifestations of Armenian national economic, social and cultural
development.

To an emergent Turkish nationalist elite the advance of any other nation
within the Empire represented a threat to its own ambition of
appropriating exclusively for itself what remained of dwindling Ottoman
territories and resources. The 19th century Ottoman drive to centralise
state power was a major weapon in the service of this Turkish
nationalist ambition and was to be wielded against Armenian Sasun that
with a majority Armenian population, a long tradition of autonomy and
armed self-defence (See Note 1) was to become an inspiring centre for
Armenian national development.

Armenian Sasun's battles in defence of its historic autonomy became
epics of resistance and heroism in the Armenian popular imagination.
Boghossian's valuable volume sheds a sobering light on the historical
processes at work.


                                  I.

Through the 19th and into the early 20th century, with its churches, its
monasteries and its armed fortifications and with the Monastery of St
Garabed at its heart, Sasun was second only to the Ararat plains and
Etchmiadzin as a historic and defining Armenian stronghold. If Ararat
produced philosopher Yeznig Goghpatsi and historian Khazar Barpetsi,
Mush-Sasun produced Mesrop Mashtots, founder of the Armenian alphabet
and Movses of Khoren, father of Armenian historiography!

For centuries, St Garabed had been a magnet for Armenians from every
corner of the land and from the Diaspora too. In the 19th century it was
a gathering point for festivities, music and entertainment as well as
news and trade (p89, 90-93). Armenian Sasun and Mush that had acquired
formal autonomy as far back as 1605 was from the 19th century on to
become a hotbed of resistance to the centralising Ottoman-Turkish State
(See Note 2). Struggling to defend its autonomy Sasun also became a
rallying point for the Armenian national movement.


                                 II.

The destruction of a relative Armenian-Kurdish harmony in Sasun was to
be Ottoman strategists' first objective. This harmony that formed a
backbone for Armenian Sasun's autonomy was a product of mutual
dependence. Kurdish lords required agricultural and craft labour and
Armenian Sasun was a ready supply. In addition though autonomous,
Armenian Sasun remained subordinate to Kurdish fiefdoms, often joining
their battles against Ottoman State attack.

Tensions begin to develop in the 19th century in part due to growing
Armenian and Kurdish competition for land. Relations were aggravated
further by the mounting demands and uncontrolled plunder of Kurdish
lords seeking to compensate for revenues lost to an increasingly
assertive central Ottoman authority. Hoping for release from escalating
Kurdish elite exploitation Armenians often aligned themselves with
centralising Turkish forces. So, relations deteriorated further still
(See Note 3). Attempts were made to restore these, but they came to
nothing. The dye had been cast for the battles of the last decade of the
19th and the first of the 20th century (p77-79)


                                 III.

Rebutting claims that the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM)
was an artificial, foreign sponsored and manipulated movement Boghossian
summarises the objective conditions that actually pushed Armenians to
revolt. (p152). Though faint glimpses of Ottoman reform under the rubric
of the Tanzimat did reach Mush and Sasun nothing was to compensate for
plunder and taxation to which Sasun's Armenian communities were
subjected (p40-42, 60-64, 68) from 1870s on, now by Kurdish forces in
co-ordination with Ottoman state forces that until the 1890s had not set
foot there (p156-7, 162-4, 165).

But before resort to open resistance Sasun Armenians, as with Armenians
generally, sought redress through Ottoman authority. Church leader
Khrimian Hayrig established a commission to examine `Letters of
Complaint' addressed to Ottoman authorities (p58, 71-74). Included in
these were protests against taxation of the dead, taxation of those who
had actually migrated as well as complaints about the requirement to
billet, feed and tend to men and animals of tax collectors (p73-78).
ithout a glance these documents discarded and conditions grew worse.

Resistance followed inevitably. Initially it was local and apolitical.
It was a natural defence of family, land and property. It was defence of
traditional rights to be free of state taxation and a refusal to pay
arbitrary tax demands from Kurdish overlords (p145, 162). This movement
was then to be incorporated into the ANLM


                                 IV.

Concerted Ottoman-Turkish pressure on Sasun opens in 1891 with a string
of attacks leading to the decisive events of 1894. In 1891 and 1892
Ottoman assaults were repulsed in part as a result of joint
Armenian-Kurdish efforts. But alas by 1893 the Ottoman State registered
a strategic success that isolated Armenians from their erstwhile Kurdish
allies. The ground was set for the major offensive of 1894.

Despite valiant resistance led by Murat and the Social Democratic Hnchak
Party, Sasun was overwhelmed. Triumphant Turkish and Kurdish forces
wreaked revenge, slaughtering, plundering and torturing (p202-3, 210).
Critically, for the very first time a Turkish military outpost was also
installed in Sasun (p218). A major consequence was mass migration and
the refusal to allow Armenians to return. 1894 did not break Sasun but
its ancient autonomy was compromised. Most dangerously Armenian Sasun
was now divided irrevocably from its previous Kurdish allies. This blow
against Sasun was to diminish the entire Armenian national movement and
was to simultaneously strengthen the Ottoman-Turkish State as it
prepared for further assaults in 1895/6, 1904 and 1915.

Turkish military forces renewed their offensive on Sasun in 1904, now as
part of a wider assault on the Armenian national liberation movement. The
odds were impossible (p257) with Turkish and Kurdish leaderships driven
by a determination to subjugate Sasun (p256). Despite leadership, this
time by Antranik, then still in ARF ranks, in unequal battle Armenian
forces were defeated. Their communities were subjected once again to
savage reprisal, suffering huge casualties and loss of property
(p264-65). Then yet more Turkish troops were stationed in strategically
important Armenian villages (p270).

For all te epic heroism the great battles of 1894 and 1904 mark it, they
appear to be only stages of steady retreat.


                                  V.

In the years after 1904, despite cautioning, from Antranik among others,
the ANLM leadership now dominated by the ARF, still demoralised and at a
loss after the massacres of 1895/96, was drawn into alliance with the
Young Turk movement. Even as Armenian communities welcomed the so-called
1908 Young Turk revolution, nothing changed for them.

Boghossian reminds us of the total fraud that was the 1908 `Revolution'.
The ARF signed accords recognising Ottoman territorial integrity. But
the Young Turks refused to grant Armenians national minority rights
(p291). They also rejected calls for proportional representation (p276)
that resulted in glaring Armenian under-representation in the new
Parliament (p280). Whatever formal law, mainly to silence the Istanbul
ANLM leadership, in Armenian homelands the situation remained dire.

Besides famine (p283), kidnapping, abduction, forced conversion and
murder continued (p285, 288). Most significantly the land question was
not resolved. Not only were plundered Armenian lands not returned but
were settled by Cherkez and Turks even as new land was seized by the
landlord class that the Young Turks come to serve (p282, 287, 289). In
addition the Young Turks did not disband the Hamidiyes, the
anti-Armenian Kurdish armed battalions that Abdul Hamid had set up as
part of his plan to draw Kurdish elites into his fold.

Meanwhile in alliance with the Young Turks the ARF had disbanded its
armed contingents. And in June 1914 less than a year before the Genocide
it also signed a loyalty pact with the Young Turks. As a result in the
run up to 1915 against a veritable Young Turk onslaught, Armenians
remained largely impotent. Political confusion combined with lack of
military readiness was to lead to disorganisation, chaos and
demoralisation. In 1915 it devastatingly undermined Sasun's resistance.

Mush-Sasun in 1915 demands its own history of which Boghossian offers
only a suggestion. Unprepared militarily (p311, 316), major strategic
blunders and leadership desertions (p313, 340) left attempts at
resistance ineffective. Having miscalculated and failed to seize the
initiative of a first strike, the Armenian leadership evacuated Mush of
its fighters, leaving the town's population at the mercy of arriving
Ottoman military.

Despite shoddy and even shady leadership Sasun resisted stubbornly and
heroically for at least 4 months. But still Armenian Sasun was brought
to its end!


                                 VI.

Besides its focus on Sasun this volume offers notable insight into the
Ottoman-Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1895/96 and into Armenian
conditions immediately prior to 1915 Genocide.

Boghossian details the scale of the 1895/96 destruction (p230) that led
to mass migration and forced conversion and delivered perhaps a decisive
blow to the Armenian national movement devastating its chances of future
successful resistance to Turkish elite nationalist attack. We read
heartrending descriptions of suffering (p232-33, 236) so deep that well
before 1915 it drove entire communities to abandon their historic
homelands (p236). Meanwhile Kurdish and Turkish forces seize any
opportunity to confiscate and settle on Armenian lands (p237-239).
Boghossian notes that many at the time described Ottoman strategy as
`demographic thinning' of the Armenian population.

Boghossian also reminds us of the often overlooked immediate prelude to
the 1915 Genocide. A nightmare of persecution, slaughter and destruction
followed the Turkish call up of men from 18-45 years old (p305). Those
not called up were used as porters in terrible conditions and suffered
huge casualties (p305). Meanwhile villages were plundered of cattle,
horses, food, stores and household goods (p306-308). Not in Istanbul,
but in their historic homeland Armenians were being driven to virtual
starvation and penury, with men murdered, women and girls abducted and
thousands burnt out of their homes.

Events in the years and the period immediately prior to 1915 fully
justify every instance of Armenian resistance in 1915. This was not
treason but a fight for survival and life!


                                * * *

Boghossian's history of Armenian Sasun that was a pillar and stronghold
of the Armenian National Movement prompts one to a reconsideration of
the historic character and role of our national liberation movement, at
least in the western Armenian homelands. In Sasun, but one could suggest
across historical western Armenia, the ANLM never rose beyond being a
last defensive action by a people fighting against an infinitely
superior genocidal Ottoman state systematically aided by European
imperial powers.

For all the epic heroism of Van and of Zeitun, of Sasun and Mush, for
all the guerrilla battles and sacrifices, the ANLM failed to stay the
hand of an emergent Turkish nationalism that in control of the
Ottoman-Turkish state moved without compromise to destroy all Armenian
socio-economic, cultural and political life throughout the Empire. The
ANLM in a sense was leading a nation not in vigorous ascent but in
retreat before the impossible odds of a state sponsored Turkish
nationalism in alliance with European imperial powers.

This is a bitter reality suggested by a reading not just of Boghossian
but of 19th and 20th Armenian history generally. One must examine
this. The truth will allow us to see more clearly the processes of
historical development in Armenia prior to and after 1915 and possible
paths of Armenian recovery and progress in the next decades of the 21st
century.

NOTES

1.
Across the 19th century this Armenian majority was steadily eroded by
plunder, slaughter, poverty, forced conversion to Islam and forced
migration. Still Armenians remained a decisive majority right to the
Genocide. Noting this, it needs to be added also that whatever the
proportions of Kurds, Turks or Armenians these regions were always
multi-national with each community having a rightful place.

2.
With the decline of the Armenian principalities in Garabagh, the centre
of national revival in historical homelands seems to shift to Sasun.
There one Bishop Hovhanan a spirited churchman in alliance with Kurdish
Bey Makhsud pushed to strengthen positions vis-rough mobilising Armenian
armies in alliance with Georgian royalty, Kurds and Assyrians. This
enterprise did not last and by the 1780s both Hovnan and Emin had gone
and Ottoman power had imposed substantial reigns upon Kurdish feudal
forces.

3.
An adequate grasp of the collapse of Armenian-Kurdish harmony requires a
full study of Kurdish nation formation and of the logic that drove the
Kurdish elite of the time into alliance with the Ottoman Turkish State.
It was this Turkish-Kurdish alliance that was to be Armenian Sasun's
death sentence and indeed a major factor in the Ottoman State's and
Young Turk's destruction of Armenian national life in the Ottoman
Empire.


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have
also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in
Los Angeles.

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